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Bill Frist: On The Rebound

After enduring a miserable political year in 2005, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is taking tentative steps toward reasserting himself as a serious presidential candidate.

A confluence of strong fundraising numbers, a solid -- if unspectacular -- appearance on "Meet The Press", the likely Senate confirmation of Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court today and a trip at the end of the week to New Hampshire have revivified a presidential effort that was all but down at the end of 2005.

As always, the strongest pillar of Frist's ambitions remains his fundraising capacity. Through his Volunteer political action committee (VOLPAC), Frist raised $3.5 million in 2005 -- roughly half of which came in during the last six months of the year.  The Tennessee senator continued to spend heavily from his VOLPAC account, doling out $3.7 million for the year -- $1.9 million in disbursements came between July 1 and Dec. 31.  Frist's PAC ended 2005 with $801,000 on hand.

Much of his spending came on prospecting --a potentially lucrative investment in locating new GOP donors across the country. While Frist cannot directly transfer any leftover funds from his leadership PAC to a presidential committee, VOLPAC's expanded donor list would be an excellent resource should he decide to run for president.

Frist also continued to donate heavily to Republican candidates -- both nationally and in key early presidential states. Frist donated $500 to the Christian Coalition of Iowa as well as $2,000 to Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley's grandson Pat, who is running for an open state House seat. (New York Gov. George Pataki and Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, both of whom have presidential ambitions, also gave to Pat Grassley last year -- as first reported by my alma mater, Roll Call.)  Frist also gave $5,000 to the Republican Party of Iowa, and helped bundle a number of contributions to Brian Kennedy, a former Capitol Hill staffer now running for Congress in Iowa's 1st District.

While Frist's fundraising has never been in question, his low-key demeanor and struggles to effectively communicate on the Sunday talk shows have long been seen as a hurdle. Even Frist allies acknowledge that he is not the most charismatic speaker, but they believe he is getting better.

On Sunday, under the microscope of "Meet The Press" host Tim Russert, Frist performed solidly.  It wasn't a home run, but he handled himself deftly on even his weakest points. The Majority Leader generally parroted Republican talking points on the contentious issues of the day, but he did seek to distinguish himself from President Bush on both the war in Iraq and the handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

On the war, Frist said that in hindsight he would have put more troops on the ground at the outset of the conflict. As for Katrina, Frist said the administration should be more forthcoming with requested information regarding its action in the wake of the disaster. "We have this -- always have this tension between my branch of government, the legislative branch, and the executive branch," Frist said. "And our job is to demand accountability, to provide appropriate oversight."

Frist also was able to parry Russert's questions on the his two major slip-ups of 2005: The congressional intervention in the Terri Schiavo case and the ongoing federal investigation into the senator's sale of stock in a health care company started by his father and older brother.

On the Schiavo matter, Frist argued that he did not make a diagnosis as to whether the Florida woman was in a persistent vegetative state.  Rather, Frist said he simply asked that there be another exam given to determine the rightness of that conclusion. Although he did not apologize for his conduct in the matter, Frist was clearly chastened by the public reaction. "The American people don't want you involved in these decisions," Frist said in response to Russert's question as to whether he had any regrets.

As for the sale of HCA stock, Frist again sounded somewhat contrite, admitting he "could've been more precise with my words" when describing the situation. Frist initially said he had no idea whether he even owned HCA stock because it was held in a blind trust -- a statement that turned out to be inaccurate.  "I acted properly throughout," Frist said, adding that he will abide by whatever ruling the Securities and Exchange Commission issues in the matter.

With Frist set to leave the Senate at the end of this session, how he fares legislatively in the next nine months is crucial.  Frist looks likely to win a victory today as Alito will almost certainly be confirmed  to the Supreme Court -- a major win for Bush and the Republican Party generally. Frist needs several more victories like this between now and November to leave the Senate on a high note.

In the meantime, Frist is making sure to move around the country to lay the groundwork for his potential presidential bid.  He'll be in New Hampshire on Friday night for the Lincoln Day Dinner in Rockingham. The next day he will be in Missouri for a fundraiser for Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) and the state's Republican party.

When asked directly about his interest in a presidential bid by Russert, Frist demurred, noting only that he will make a decision on the race in about a year's time. A source close to Frist told The Fix that the senator will spend the next nine months working "to grow the Republican Party with time and resources while electing Republicans at all levels of government, regardless of what his own future holds."

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 31, 2006; 9:25 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008 , Senate  
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